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“O Sweet Cautery”: John of the Cross and the Healing of the Natural World

  • Mary Frohlich (a1)
Abstract

Contrary to what may appear in a superficial understanding of his spirituality, John of the Cross strongly affirms the goodness of creation and its capacity to mediate the presence of God. He specifically identifies the web of mutual interactions among creatures as a primary manifestation of divine love, and he affirms that the more a person participates in God, the more he or she participates fully and joyfully in this community of creatures. Activation of creation's full capacity to mediate divinity, however, depends on the full fruition of the human person in God. Experientially, this involves a lengthy process of a back-and-forth rhythm between the glimpse of God in creation and the complete renunciation of dependence on creaturely knowledge in favor of faith. John's writings invite us to participate in the healing of the natural world by pursuing this contemplative rhythm all the way to its fruitional climax.

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References
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1 I am deeply grateful to the three anonymous reviewers of this article, whose comments have helped to improve it greatly.

2 Francis, Pope, On Care for Our Common Home: Laudato Si’ (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2015), §234.

3 The Bible edition I have used is Donald Senior, Collins, John J., and Getty, Mary Ann, eds., The Catholic Study Bible: The New American Bible, 2nd ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). It is noteworthy that the first biblical quote in Laudato Si’ is Romans 8:22. In paragraph 2 the pope writes: “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail.’” (The NAB translation says, “groaning in labor pains.”)

4 Byrne, Brendan, Romans, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 256.

5 John of the Cross, Romances, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kavanaugh, Kieran and Rodriguez, Otilio, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 63.

6 John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 2.10.

7 The Spanish edition that I have consulted in the course of this writing is de la Cruz, Juan, San Juan de La Cruz: Obras Completas, ed. Rodriguez, José Vicente and Salvador, Federico Ruiz, 5th ed. (Madrid: Editorial de Espiritualidad, 1993).

8 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 1.4.2.

9 This phrase comes from John's “Sketch of Mount Carmel,” in which he depicts the most perfect path to the mount as “nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing and even on the Mount nothing.” John of the Cross, “Sketch of Mount Carmel,” in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 110–11.

10 “The Dark Night” is the title of one of John's most famous poems, as well as of an extensive commentary on the poem. See John of the Cross, The Dark Night, in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.

11 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Prologue 1–2.

12 For a thorough study of the “Spiritual Canticle” poem in terms of this three-pronged mimesis, see Perrin, David Brian, Canciones entre el alma y el esposo of Juan de La Cruz: A Hermeneutical Interpretation (San Francisco, CA: Catholic Scholars Press, 1996). See also Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Schneiders, Sandra M, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

13 See, for example, Crisógono de Jesús Sacramentado, The Life of St. John of the Cross, trans. Pond, Kathleen (London: Longmans, 1958), 67, 130, 161, 166, 196; Ruiz, Federico, ed., God Speaks in the Night: The Life, Times, and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kavanaugh, Kieran (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000), 259, 326–27.

14 On this topic, see Azam, Gilbert, “Le monde sensible et son expression dans Saint Jean de La Croix,” Bulletin de Littérature Ecclésiastique 90, no. 1 (1989): 2332 ; Bocos, Florentino, “Las criaturas en el processo espiritual de San Juan de La Cruz,” in Jean de La Cruz, espíritu de llama: Estudios con ocasión del cuarto centenario de su muerte (1591–1991), ed. Streggink, Otger, Studies in Spirituality Supplements 1 (Rome: Institutum Carmelitanum, 1991), 581–96; Nemeck, Francis K, Receptivity (New York: Vantage, 1985), 1731 ; Perrin, David Brian, For Love of the World: The Old and New Self of John of the Cross (San Francisco, CA: Catholic Scholars Press, 1997).

15 Romances, 62–63.

16 Ibid., 64.

17 The following very brief review of some of John's explanatory concepts does not, of course, do full justice to all the nuances of his thought. For a fuller account, see Payne, Steven, John of the Cross and the Cognitive Value of Mysticism, Synthese Historical Library (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1990), chap. 2.

18 John of the Cross, The Dark Night, 1.4.2; 2.1.1; 2.3.1. The Spanish term John uses is uno supuesto. We might also note that the term “soul” as used by John very often could be translated as “whole person” in today's terminology.

19 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1.4.2.

20 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 22.3; 39.6.

21 John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 4.7.

22 Ibid., 2.10.

23 Ibid.

24 John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 3.26.5.

25 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 5.4.

26 Gregersen, Niels Henrik, “The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World,” Dialog 40, no. 3 (September 2001): 192207 .

27 Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 207–10.

28 Strong resonances of this perspective also appear in Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home, §§100, 243.

29 John of the Cross, Romances, 64.

30 John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, trans., The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, no. 100.

31 Edwards, Denis, “Evolution, Emergence and the Creator Spirit: A Conversation with Stuart Kauffman,” Colloquium 42, no. 2 (November 1, 2010): 208–30.

32 Johnson, Ask the Beasts, 175.

33 These perspectives are endorsed, albeit somewhat obliquely, in Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home, §§79–80.

34 See Perrin, Canciones, 109–21. In the early twentieth century there was some debate on whether the B version was authentic, but that has since been resolved; see Perrin's note on p. 120. Perrin argues that each of the three versions of the poem deserves to be regarded as a work of art in its own right.

35 Leclercq, Jean, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, 3rd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 107–8.

36 Thompson, Colin P., The Poet and the Mystic: A Study of the “Cántico espiritual” of San Juan de La Cruz, Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monographs (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 60f.

37 When John does use the Spanish word bailando, it has the negative connotation of people celebrating idols; see John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 3.38.3. For a thorough discussion of John's appreciation of the spiritual role of the arts despite his highly cautionary comments, see von Balthasar, Hans Urs, “St. John of the Cross: The Perfect Adventure,” in Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles, vol. 3, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), 105–71.

38 This is the section referenced by Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home, §234.

39 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 14/15.5.

40 See also the earlier reference to The Ascent of Mount Carmel 3.26.5, in which John describes union with God as a return to the delights of Eden.

41 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 39.11.

42 Sells, Michael Anthony, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

43 John's work as a teenager as an aide in a hospital for the poor, and the special care he gave to the sick and wounded in his communities throughout his life, provide a biographical context for this image. See Crisógono de Jesús Sacramentado, The Life of St. John of the Cross, 13–14, 148–51, 198–200; Ruiz, God Speaks in the Night, 40–47.

44 The same dynamic of “the pains of childbirth” is referenced by Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home, §80.

45 Imagery of “wounds” appears frequently in John's writings. The clearest statement of the three types of wounds is in John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 7. In this chapter John calls the three increasingly painful wounds (1) the “wound” (herida) of knowledge of creatures, (2) the “sore wound” (llaga) of knowledge of the mysteries of faith, and (3) the “festered wound” (llaga afistolada) of “the touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity.” See also The Living Flame of Love, 1.6–26.

46 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 7.2.

47 Ibid., 14/15.5.

48 John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love.

49 Ibid., 2.18.

50 Ibid., 2.8.

51 Ibid., 4.5.

52 For a detailed study of John and connaturality, see Aaron, N. Grace, Thought and Poetic Structure in San Juan de la Cruz's Symbol of Night, Studies in the Humanities 66 (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).

53 John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 2.10.

54 FitzGerald, Constance, “Transformation in Wisdom: The Subversive Character and Educative Power of Sophia in Contemplation,” in Culligan, Kevin OCD, and Jordan, Regis OCD, eds., Carmel and Contemplation (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000), 333.

55 See John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 5.1–4; 14/15.25–27; 39.11.

56 John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 2.10.

57 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 14/15.25.

58 Ibid., 7.2.

59 Christie, Douglas E, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), chap. 3.

60 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 7.3.

61 Ibid., 14/15.4.

62 Jordan, William, The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

63 Berry, Thomas, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Crown, 2000).

64 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 7.4.

65 Ibid., 29.2.

66 As is argued, for example, by Flynn, Maureen, “The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 2 (1996): 257–78.

67 Crisógono de Jesús Sacramentado, The Life of St. John of the Cross, 13–14; Ruiz, God Speaks in the Night, 40–47.

68 John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 2.1–2.

69 Ibid., 1.14.

70 Ibid., 2.10.

71 Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home, §234. The translation of John's text in the Vatican's English translation of the encyclical differs slightly from that in the edition I have been using. For reference, the Spanish text reads: “Todo lo que aquí se declara está en Dios eminentemente en infinita manera o, por mejor decir, cada una de estas grandezas que se dicen es Dios, y todas ellas juntas son Dios. Que, por cuanto en este caso se une el alma con Dios, siente ser todas las cosas Dios.”

72 John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 14/15.5.

73 Ibid., 14/15.6–7.

74 This is not intended as a competitive statement, as if John of the Cross were “better” than Saint Francis, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, Romano Guardini, or others who appear to have had even more influence on the spiritual and theological framework that Pope Francis is developing in Laudato Si’. The point is that John of the Cross' particular contribution to Christian thought includes a unique depth of explanation of the character and meaning of mystical transformation. By bringing him into the picture, Pope Francis adds mystical and rhetorical punctuation that strengthens the potential theological and pastoral impact of the encyclical.

75 de Lisieux, Saint Thérèse, Her Last Conversations (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1977), July 15, 1897, no. 5.

76 Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home, §§211–12.

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Horizons
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